Centipedes are soft-bodied and dorsoventrally flattened arthropods characterized by having 15-181 pairs of legs, one leg per segment (always an odd number). Species in temperate regions are 1-10 cm long and yellowish brown to brown. Tropical species are 25 cm long and often bright red, orange, green, or violet. The head has a pair of antennae and three pairs of mouthparts. Behind the head is the first body segment (basilar segment), which contains the poison-claws that are used to capture prey. Some species have compound eyes, some have clusters of ocelli, and some lack eyes. These arthropods are nocturnal and are limited to moisthabitats, since their cuticle lacks an impervious wax-layer (characteristic of insects). Spiracular openings to tubular tracheae are located above the insertion of the legs on the sides of the body. In most centipedes the spiracles are placed on alternate segments of the body. Legs have six segments: coxa, trochanter, prefemur, femur, tibia, and tarsus. In the Scutigermorphora the tarsus consists of a very large number of segments.

Centipedes are primarily carnivorous, and the majority feed on insects. Some species of Geophilomorpha will feed on plant tissues, and some of the large species of Scolopendra (Scolopen-dromorpha) have been known to kill and eat small birds, mice, snakes, and geckoes. The mouth is located ventrally on the head, and it is bounded by the clypeus, which is a plate anterior to the mouth. The appendages of the first three segments posterior to the mouth are modified to form mouthparts. The first pair is the mandibles, which have three or four teeth; the second pair of mouthparts (first maxillae) is located in front of the mandibles, and obscures them when the head is viewed ventrally. The third pair of mouthparts partly covers the second maxilla; they are leg-like in structure, and contain the poison gland.

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